The future of steering wheels.
The steering wheel: it’s the first thing you touch when you sit in the driver’s seat, but most people never give it a second thought. And why would they? They’re mostly the same from car to car. Their layout, functionality and form are generally almost identical within most commercially available automobiles. It’s true that over the years they have improved in functionality – being able to control the radio, the horn, the cruise control, the car phone, and with the windscreen and indicator light controls also within fingers’ reach – but nobody expects any surprises from them.
That’s about to change.
Technological advancements within the digital age, such as electrification amd autonomous driving, are about to alter the relationship between driver and car drastically, look no further than our very own MINI Vision Urbanaut. But how will this surge in innovation redefine the steering wheel, for example, in the MINI of the future? How will its functionality and aesthetics change? That is what MINI Switzerland wanted to find out in a joint automotive design project with ECAL, the University of Art and Design Lausanne. Young designers from all over the world were invited to develop their vision of the multifunctioning steering wheel of the future. The MINI design team in Munich supported the cooperation, with Christian Bauer, Head of Interior Design MINI, giving the students valuable input. “Today, the wheel is still all about control and safety. Other factors are secondary,” explains Bauer. However, the students had to imagine what happens after this status quo changes.
For Bauer, such projects are extremely valuable as he and his team are always looking for an outside perspective – especially from a future customer group. “Today, our hands are limited by security, ergonomics, and comfort. Currently it is difficult to make bigger changes. Optics and the growing number of additional functions are the greatest concern. So mainly our inspiration comes from the world of smartphones, architecture, furniture, and product design. But autonomous driving will change everything.”
“The question should be how can we reconnect or change our relationship with future cars? How can I create a relationship with my car in an age where cars don’t need steering wheels? Steering wheels have to offer new experiences so that they’ll be used, as they will not be the must-have they are now,” says Bauer. These are the questions that MINI aims to find answers to, and where the students are a big source of inspiration.
And the results are truly inspiring. The 19 different works are displayed at the Munich Creative Business Week in the MINI Pavillon in Munich from the 14th until the 21st of May. We selected six and sat down with Christian Bauer, who helped explain why these new visions of the future were so exciting, and how they are helping MINI reconsider how they think about the future of steering wheel design. Peek into the future and check out all the works at the bottom of the page.
We’ve grouped the selected works into three different categories, based on the ways they reimagined steering wheels.
“A purrfect driving buddy.!”
When the imagination runs free of any preconceived notions, the results can become almost artistic. This is definitely the case with Tsubasa Koshide’s furry animal-like companion. And it is exactly what it looks like: a cute little plush buddy, to accompany you on your way. Taking MINI’s playful nature to heart, Koshide created a steering wheel that redefines what a “fun” driving experience in the age of self-driving cars can be. “It is an eye-opener,” says Christian Bauer. “Adding emotionality to a product is very important to MINI, and this is a very daring, sympathetic, and fresh take. No other brand could put a plush as a wheel.” But beyond its unexpected nature, the MINI NYAN – “nyan” meaning a cat’s “meow” in Japanese – attempts to redefine the relationship between the car and the driver. “Maybe the function could be to make people feel more comfortable, by the wheel wagging its tail, purring, etc.” – says Koshide. And who wouldn’t want a furry little friend as a companion on a long trip?
“From turning the wheel to turning the screw.”
What if the steering wheel could be anything you want it to be? That is the question behind Danpeng Cai’s idea. “In the future, steering wheels will not be mandatory, and will be more like an add-on experience,” he explains. That is why he came up with this special wing nut, which could easily turn any readymade object into a steering wheel, allowing you to use it to drive your car with the help of motion capture or other new technologies. The steering wheel could allow you to express yourself, making driving (when it’s even necessary) personalised. Christian Bauer is equally excited: “It’s so simple, and it allows for so much individuality. And that is very MINI. It allows the driver to customise their car exactly how they want to, according to how they’re currentlyfeeling. It’s your room inside the car, individualisation taken to new heights.“ And if it could work with the steering wheel, why couldn’t the entirety of car’s interior design become a canvas for the driver?
“Less is more.”
Moving on, we have a couple of projects that examine the aesthetic nature of the steering wheel and help us realise how the way an object looks can determine the way it functions. Yoosung Kim looked at power steering, the car technology that made automobiles literally easier to drive, and imagined the next logical step. What if in the future there would be no mechanical, physical connection between the steering wheel and the rest of the car, just a digital one. Would you need big, bulky wheels that you need two hands to turn, if you were mostly driving autonomously? Probably not. Taking inspiration from his own thin-rimmed glasses, Kim came up with a very elegant design. “It’s really simple, thin and lightweight,” says Kim. “The interface is quite different from the conventional steering wheel. It just needs a little touch on the wheel, and you can control your car.” Christian Bauer agrees: “It’s aesthetically incredibly sensitive, to create something so delicate from hard, stiff materials. And its use is also just as delicate, needing only a finger to turn, while the car does the rest.”
Sustainability is not just about what kind of power the car runs on, but what the car is made of in the first place. And according to Carolin Schelke, flax could be the solution in many cases. “Flax is a great material because it has a very strong structure. When the fibres are stacked crosswise and enhanced with a bio-composite, they obtain a similar strength to carbon, aluminium and even glass fibres, which are materials widely used in the car industry. Carbon and aluminium are lightweight but use six times more energy to produce than steel, which annuls the energy they save after production. […] Additionally, flax absorbs vibration, which makes it even more suitable for the car interior.” Christian Bauer sees a further benefit to this design: “Flax is not just a material. Through its very nature, it determines the aesthetics of the object. It makes sustainability obvious and visible through its structure and its looks.” This simply means that drivers could feel and touch the sustainability; it would be an essential part of the physical, tactile, visual experience of the car.
If you look at this steering wheel and think to yourself, “Wait a minute, that looks like something off a sailboat!” – well, you are not wrong. Steffan thought that with autonomous cars freeing us from the tedious part of driving, we could instead focus completely on making it as exciting as possible. His wheel thus has a singular function: intense fun. “The initial intention was to translate the rotational steering movement to something more direct similar to a bicycle. I felt that there would be several sports to draw reference from, like soapbox racing, paragliding, rowing, windsurfing, waterskiing and even horse riding, that could add more excitement and dedication to the steering, taming the force of the car, so to speak.” Or as Christian Bauer explains: “With this design you don’t have to use the steering wheel, you’ll want to use it, because it’s fun! It is, once again, a completely new way of interacting with the wheel.” And Bauer sees a lot of potential in this: “When steering offers a new fun experience, that could make the difference. Because otherwise automated driving will make driving with a wheel unnecessary and, of course, boring. We will need to bring new life, new meanings to transportation.”
I can take you there.
“In the future of driving, you are not a driver anymore, you are a passenger. I created an identity for MINI, and I was trying to create a friendship between the object and the user of the object” – claims Giacomo de Paoli. Christian Bauer sees it the same way: “It is a minimalistic and visually focused way of showing the transforming relationship of steering a car.” Voice control is already part of many cars’ repertoire, but turning the entire vehicle into a voice-controlled mobility assistant takes Autonomous Driving to an entirely new level. De Paoli’s YOUR MINI not only takes voice command as a functionality further, but attempts to give it a personality as well.
If any of the projects presented here would be developed further, many new things would have to be considered. Christian Bauer explained that during the development process the designers and engineers would have to figure out where the buttons, switches and additional functionality goes: “What happens to the airbags, how can we signal that they’re secure? What happens to the current needs of interaction (the wipers, the signal lights, etc.)? In certain cases, would we even have to ask where the driver’s hands go? To find solutions and to check how the relationship and the control can be changed, there would be a lot of physical models produced, because we are responsible for a valid and safe development.” Let’s see if we get to experience any of these works in a couple of years.